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Chicago’s use of stimulus for Englewood families has lessons for U.S.

Tue, Jan 8, 2013

Diandra* worked low-wage jobs to further her education in nursing and to support her four children (two sons and two daughters) when her house caught fire and she moved in with her mother until that home also went into foreclosure.

Sabrina,* also a single mother on disability caring for two children and a grandchild, moved in with her mother after her apartment was foreclosed.

Both of the women were among 220 Englewood households assisted by a Chicago program funded with stimulus money that a new report says can be a model for other families across the nation living doubled-up homeless with friends or relatives or in similar very unstable housing conditions.

In 2009, the City of Chicago Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS) received funding from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) to help these families, which encompassed 879 people (and 611 children) all considered at risk of becoming homeless by the Chicago Public Schools. On average, they had been homeless 2.4 times in the past, for an average of 18 months.

Yet after participating in the Student Family Support Services (SFSI) program that offered them first stabilized subsidized housing and then both a menu of support services such as employment skills or asset building, 71.2 percent of the families were able to take responsibility for paying their own rent without a subsidy (and 9.6 percent moved into other subsidized housing). Their children’s performance in school also improved.

“We are pleased to have led a successful collaboration with SFSI and the Chicago Public Schools,” DFSS Commissioner Evelyn Diaz said in prepared material. “In the end we were able to extract some very valuable information for future programs while helping improve the quality of life for a very vulnerable group.”

“The innovative program Chicago created with stimulus funds can serve as a model for cities across the nation for families living doubled up or in very unstable housing conditions,” said Amy Rynell, who is director of the Social IMPACT Research Center and lead author of the program’s evaluation, in a telephone interview.

Researchers were surprised at the level of need among the doubled-up homeless, SFSI participants, Rynell said.

“Providers were accustomed to working with families in the homeless system and there had been a lot of assumptions that families who were living doubled up or unstably housed had fewer needs [than conventionally homeless people in shelters or on the street],” she said. “But in fact we found that they are essentially very similar families. The families in this project are the families that are going to enter the homeless system if we do not intervene and some indeed did before the housing subsidy kicked in.”

After her mother’s home went into foreclosure, for example, Diandra went to live with her sister briefly until she found her own apartment. But that apartment also went into foreclosure, which sent her bouncing between her brother’s and sister’s homes and then her mother’s and stepfather’s. During this period, Diandra also suffered from breast cancer, and her son became the only one of her children to live with his father rather than with her. He told his sister he wanted to kill himself and he became abusive to animals around the house. Diandra chose therapy for herself and her children but once she secured a Section 8 voucher, she no longer returned for services.

Sabrina’s mother died several months after she moved in and staying in the apartment was too painful. She moved in with a son in Indiana but was forced to move back to Chicago after her daughter witnessed criminal activity and the Indiana home became too dangerous for her. Sabrina then spent weekdays with an aunt and weekends with a son until the aunt’s building also went into foreclosure.

As the oldest in her family, Sabrina had always been the person to whom family members turned. Educated only through high school, she had worked in trucking, retail, for the church and the school system. Her physical health issues included diverticulitis and a son with asthma. In terms of mental health, her past traumas included physical abuse by her father and losing many loved ones to gang violence.

Sabrina received housing, employment and therapy through SFSI but cut back once she found a job. Before the program ended, she and her family were placed in housing and she enrolled in security guard training to get a better job.

Housing was the doubled-up families’ most immediate need, on which all other progress rested, Rynell said in the telephone interview.

“For this group, what we learned — what their behavior told us — is that until they were out of a doubled-up living situation and more stable, they couldn’t take part in training, therapy or other services because their lives were very complicated and they had little privacy, juggling a lot of things to get by from day to day.”

Once housed, families are more likely to take advantage of more intensive services, Rynell noted in the evaluation. But since the families had often been homeless for so long, they might need to be re-enrolled in housing if the first placement did not stick.

Click image to enlarge graph

The SFSI program offered $1.53 million in housing assistance to 144 unduplicated families, according to the report, for an average of $10,671 per person. Rental assistance for 18 months was the primary use for the money (an average of $728 per month) but the HPRP (Homeless Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program) funds also helped with moving costs and security deposits: the extra month’s rent that can be a barrier to many people, Rynell said.

The DFSS also helped with housing placement, she said, by going to landlords and asking if they would accept program participants at an affordable rent.

“Both DFSS and SFSI program staff recognized that a key factor for families to maintain housing after financial assistance ends is affordable rent,” Maura McCauley, DFSS director of homeless prevention, policy & planning said in an email. “Families in the program had limited income or additional barriers to housing stability, so it was important for rents to fall well below Fair Market Rent for families to have successful outcomes.”

After the 18 months, however, Rynell said that the majority of participants — 71.2 percent — were able to go on to unsubsidized housing.

“Most of them got a job and found rent they could afford and maybe got other benefits to help them afford that rent,” Rynell said. She speculated that some may have qualified for food stamps, which freed up more of their work income.

Nearly all participants (99 percent) took advantage of housing assistance SFSI offered and its other programs were nearly as fully utilized. Rynell said the reason was that services were more easily accessible than the usual separate “silos.”

“You could go to one place and you had a menu of services to choose from,” she said. “You could pick what you most needed instead of going to a variety of places for each different service.”

Employment assistance, for example, attracted 93 percent participation. Job developers helped those with recent work history while ARRA-funded programs such as Put Illinois to Work and Chicago Neighborhood JobStart offered options to those without a marketable skill set.

Ninety percent of households took advantage of “asset building,” or individual counseling and credit restoration, savings plans and education about asset wealth, which encompassed issues such as debt reduction, spending leaks, savings planning, retirement planning and tax credit eligibility.

Mental health services attracted 70 percent of households. Provided by Beacon Therapeutic Diagnostic and Treatment Center, the program included a monthly call/wellness check as well as individual and group therapy. Children had access to a psychiatrist and a therapist. Services included classroom observation and collaborations with teachers.

Doubled-up families are hard for social service agencies to reach because they often don’t have addresses, so the SFSI program also showed that schools provide an effective way to reach these families, Rynell said. DFSS and Chicago Public Schools chose Englewood for the project because it has the highest concentration of homeless students in the city.

School systems also use a broader definition of homelessness that includes being doubled up because education is regarded as a civil right. Each school within CPS has a liaison specifically designated to work with homeless children.

Except for 83 children under age 3, 90 percent of the children in the SFSI program were elementary school students. Recruiting high school students was more difficult because parents of these older students are usually less involved and also because the young people themselves were more adept at hiding their situation.

“Systems integration,” or identifying and removing barriers to service, was yet another important lesson of the stimulus-funded program, Rynell said. The report discusses a lack of trust in Englewood for outsiders based on programs that have come and gone. It also mentions “existing coalitions operating disjointedly,” with “different people at the table [who] discuss many of the same issues.”

The SFSI team spent time meeting and supporting various local coalitions working on various measures ranging from anti-violence, to health, to restoring neighborhood infrastructure.

“Because this was funded through the Recovery Act, it was always known from Day One the program would be short-term and would go away,” Rynell said. “No one wants that to happen, so part of what the systems integration team did was help identify where we could build information and capacity in Englewood so a huge gap would not be felt when the program ended.”

ARRA was signed into law Feb. 17, 2009 and all of the funds had to be spent within three years. However, the money was not actually available until January 2010. Services ended December 31 of that year and the 18 months of housing assistance (HPRP) on June 30 of this year.

Rynell admits that this Chicago program “was just a very small drop in the bucket” among the 15,000 people in Englewood (nearly 44 percent of the neighborhood) who live in poverty.

“What this program did is, it reached families we’ve never reached before and it stopped them from entering the homeless system and it helped in a small way the children to do better in school,” she said. “I do think we need a permanent program to help these types of families.”

She is more emphatic in the evaluation. “We are at a unique moment in time. The number of doubled up families is extraordinarily high and the poor economic conditions are not forecasted to improve substantially for some time. SFSI can serve as a model of what we know about targeting doubled-up families through a housing and services intervention.”

• not her real name

Written by Suzanne Hanney,
StreetWise Editor-In-Chief


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